We all need mythical heroes
On a study tour in faraway Estonia, veteran Kenyan journalist Wycliffe Muga finds familiar parallels between the Eastern European country’s mythical hero “Kalevipoeg” and “Gor Mahia”, the larger-than-life figure from Luo mythology. It turns out – whether in Europe or Africa – our “mythical heroes” say more about us and our fears than we would like to admit.
When I was in Tallinn, Estonia, in January 2016 nobody mentioned Kalevipoeg to me. The focus of that study tour was mostly on how Estonians are working towards a high-tech future in which their country will be a leader in global ICT solutions.
But on my return to Estonia in mid-November, I got to visit the Kumu Museum of Fine Art in Tallinn and saw plenty of images of this mythical Estonian hero.
And at Tallinn Airport, awaiting my return flight to Amsterdam, I saw a large statute of Kalevipoeg’s mother, Linda, a key figure in the lyrical account of the great hero’s life:
Thanks to Tallinn’s excellent free airport Wi-Fi, I was able to spend the next hour or so, as I waited to check in, reading about this mythical hero whose depictions in various paintings at the Kumu Museum had so gripped my imagination.
I even got to watch a video of a somewhat irreverent animation of the life of Kalevipoeg produced, oddly enough, by the Baltic Film and Media School of Tallinn University, the very institution which had been my host on my two visits to Tallinn during 2016.
As shown in this version of the Estonian Epic, the hero had the ability to run for uncountable miles; and swim across the endless seas all the way to Finland in pursuit of a cruel sorcerer who had kidnapped his mother.
He of course succeeds in finding the sorcerer and subsequently beats him to death with a large pole. Thereafter he seeks to have a new sword made for him, in recognition of his newly acquired heroic stature (with the unfortunate consequence that he accidentally kills the family members of the blacksmith who forges this special sword for him, and so is cursed by the blacksmith, to die by the same sword).
As shown in this version of the Estonian Epic, the hero had the ability to run for uncountable miles; and swim across the endless seas all the way to Finland in pursuit of a cruel sorcerer who had kidnapped his mother
None of this prevents him, though, from winning the contest to choose “the King of all Estonia” – this being a contest of strength and to be decided on the question of who can throw the biggest rock furthest from the village.
As per the animation, “Kalevipoeg makes a man-sized rock fly like a thousand birds over the big sea” and is of course chosen as “the best King of Estonia” and general happiness prevails thereafter – until a devil steals his “precious sword”…
I could go on. But here is a brief synopsis of the life of Kalevipoeg from Wikipedia, which will have to do instead:
“Kalevipoeg travels to Finland in search of his kidnapped mother. During his travel he purchases a sword but kills the blacksmith’s eldest son in an argument. The blacksmith places a curse on the sword and is thrown in the river. On returning to Estonia Kalevipoeg becomes king after defeating his brothers in a stone hurling competition. He constructs towns and forts and tills the land in Estonia. Kalevipoeg then journeys to the ends of the earth to expand his knowledge. He defeats Satan in a trial of strength and rescues three maidens from hell. War breaks out and destruction visits Estonia and Kalevipoeg’s faithful comrades are killed, he hands rule over to his brother Olev and withdraws to the forest depressed. Crossing a river, the sword cursed by the Blacksmith and previously thrown in the river, cuts off his legs. He dies and goes to heaven. Taara in consultation with the other gods, reanimates Kalevipoeg, places his legless body on a white steed and sends him down to the gates of hell where he is ordered to strike the rock with his fist, thus entrapping it in the rock. So Kalevipoeg remains to guard the gates of hell.
Part of the reason why this epic tale made such an impression on me is that I grew up hearing just such fantastical tales. There was Gor Mahia, a legendary hero of the Luo tribe, inhabitants of the shores of Lake Victoria in my country, Kenya. Every Kenyan tribe has its mythical heroes. We Luos actually have several, but Gor Mahia is by far the most famous. He was actually born as Gor Ogalo, but is known to posterity as Gor Mahia – the term ‘Mahia’ being an ancient Luo language term for “the amazing one” or some other such superlative title, which has since been confined to this one great hero, and is not ever used to define anyone else.
According to the stories I heard from my uncles and grandparents, this hero was partly a seer who could foretell the future; also a medicine man with the power to heal. He was “stronger than 100 ordinary men”; and he even had power over the beasts of the forests. In short, he was an all-round possessor of supernatural powers.
Two stories about Gor Mahia haunted my childhood imagination.
The first was that he was usually accompanied by a large black dog when he went walking around the village (even great heroes have their moments when they have nothing in particular to do, and so just take a stroll like anyone else). But what marked his progress through the village fields was that people would always want to stop him and engage him in discussion – and he was a man of few words, who generally preferred not to engage in idle village gossip. So when he was walking towards a group of men who were evidently eager to talk to him, he would simply disappear – the capacity to render himself invisible being one of his many supernatural powers.
One moment the villagers who were eagerly awaiting the opportunity to talk to the great hero would see him walking towards them alongside his famous black dog; and next moment, they would see the dog walking past them by itself, with no sign of Gor Mahia anywhere.
I actually grew up in the various Kenyan towns and cities where my father’s work took him; and so my visits to our “ancestral village” near Lake Victoria were somewhat rare – mostly once a year for Christmas, when we would visit my grandmother who still lived there, along with various relatives.
Every Kenyan tribe has its mythical heroes. We Luos actually have several, but Gor Mahia is by far the most famous. He was actually born as Gor Ogalo, but is known to posterity as Gor Mahia – the term ‘Mahia’ being an ancient Luo language term for “the amazing one”
But well into my teenage years, whenever I saw a solitary man walking along some village path in that general region with a dog running beside him (any dog at all, not necessarily a black dog) I fully expected to see the man suddenly vanish. Such was the impact of the stories I had heard about Gor Mahia in my younger days.
The other story I recall is what would happen during times of famine. Now this is one aspect of pre-colonial Africa which is rarely mentioned because many within the continent consider it to be uniquely humiliating. But prior to the waves of colonization in the19th century which culminated in the Berlin Conference of 1884 the indigenous communities of Africa had no capacity for scientific agriculture and no knowledge of modern medicine.
Entire villages would routinely die off through the spread of disease or due to the regular famines, a constant feature of life in those times.
Well, the myth has it that in times of famine, Gor Mahia would calmly walk the edge of Lake Victoria; dive into its waters; and after an immense upheaval with water splashing and the loud cries of an adult hippo in its death throes, the mighty hero would emerge with a giant hippo carried above his head, and toss it onto the beach where villagers waited with machetes to strip off every last ounce of flesh to the bone from the freshly killed hippo.
And he would repeat this feat until there was enough meat for everybody to feast to their hearts’ content.
When you bear it in mind that an adult female hippo weighs about 1.5 tonnes, and a full grown adult male weighs in at 4.5 tonnes, you get some idea of how strong this man was supposed to be who could wrestle a hippo to death in its native aquatic environment, and then raise it above his head and fling it onto the beach.
So over and above his mythical healing powers and ability to render himself invisible, this man was a combination of the modern comic and movie superheroes, The Incredible Hulk and The Mighty Thor.
Oddly enough Gor Mahia was nowhere described as a huge monster of a man, with masses of rippling muscles. Apparently he looked just like an ordinary, reasonably athletic man. And we are supposed to assume that his feats of strength were actually just pure magic, rather than the result of weightlifting or other “body building” exercises at the ancient equivalent of the modern gym.
This mention of superheroes brings me to the main reason why seeing Kalevipoeg (or, more precisely, his mother Linda) immortalized at Tallinn Airport made me think of Gor Mahia.
It seems that each community, tribe or nation invents its mythical heroes as a response to its most visceral fears.
Tiny Estonia, is surrounded by larger and more powerful states, and has been the victim of many brutal military invasions over the past centuries, and so seeks solace in an all-powerful, one-man-army hero who can be relied on to pursue the evil invader all the way to Finland and beyond – all the way to the gates of hell – in pursuit of revenge or justice.
My own ancestors on the shores of Lake Victoria, terrified of famine and disease, invented a man who could not only cure illness, but could singlehandedly create an all-you-can-eat feast of freshly barbecued hippo meat.
Dear reader, if after reading this piece you would like to share with us a story about a mythical hero from your community/country please let us know: firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll be more than happy to share your story (lightly edited if need be) with other readers.
Wycliffe Muga is a veteran opinion columnist. He was also the BBC World Service, Business Daily, “Letter from Africa” global radio commentator, from 2006 to 2015.